Big in China: Brands import foreign celebrities

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BEIJING (AP) - Kevin Garnett wore his affection for China’s booming sportswear market on his back as the NBA star arrived in Beijing in August.

“Love China” declared the Boston Celtics power forward’s T shirt. On the front: The angular red slash logo of Anta, the athletic shoe producer that brought Garnett to China for a weeklong promotional tour.

Garnett in China is the definition of a basketball superstar. His image and influence among Chinese young people are very big,” said Zheng Jie, Anta’s senior vice president.

To reach worldly young Chinese consumers, the country’s new but ambitious brands are scouring the globe for athletes, film stars and other celebrity spokespeople like Garnett who might have no personal link to China but are stars here.

Chinese companies’ embrace of foreign spokespeople is especially striking in a country that had almost no advertising industry 20 years ago. But after three decades of breakneck economic growth, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts that China should pass Japan by 2014 as the second-biggest advertising market after the United States.

China’s advertising spending on TV, radio, newspapers and magazines rose 14 percent last year over 2008 to 597 billion yuan ($88 billion), according to research firm Nielsen Co. This rapid growth is also making China attractive as a business opportunity for sports stars and other celebrities.

“Lord of the Rings” star Orlando Bloom and English fashion model Agyness Deyn appear in advertising for Me & City, a 2-year-old Chinese fashion brand. NBA player Baron Davis and Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, a gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, smile down from billboards for Anta’s sports gear rival, Li Ning.

Chinese companies that competed a decade ago on price alone are becoming more savvy about brand-building, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

“A lot of Chinese firms, like Anta, think being a good brand is having a global celebrity,” Rein said. “It makes them feel they are more of premium brand and have a global image.”

Anta, established in 1994, has 7,854 stores throughout China and hopes Garnett can help it achieve its goal of becoming the country’s biggest seller of basketball-related products by 2013, Zheng said.

“He plays with a spirit of fearlessness and never gives up on court. This matches with the Anta spirit of ‘keep moving,’” Zheng said.

During his visit, Garnett taught young fans ball-handling tricks at public appearances and visited Anta factories.

Garnett will appear in Anta TV commercials and the company plans to launch a “KG” line of shoes, clothes and accessories. Anta said Garnett will wear his “KG” shoes for NBA games next season and make annual return visits to China during his three-year contract.

Zheng declined to say how much the NBA star is being paid.

Garnett is not the company’s first endorsed foreign celebrity, following NBA player Luis Scola and Serbian tennis player Jelena Jankovic.

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